Bears

The helmet rule: Bears-Ravens game was just the beginning of NFL problems with a rule even coaches don’t get

The helmet rule: Bears-Ravens game was just the beginning of NFL problems with a rule even coaches don’t get

The Bears-Baltimore Ravens game was something a bit more than an extra preseason game. It was a test kitchen of sorts, with the Bears and Ravens not exactly laboratory animals, but not exactly just playing another preseason game, either.

The reason was the debut of the “helmet-hitting rule,” a local ordinance enacted this offseason that imposes a 15-yard penalty on a player lowering his head to initiate a hit. Two Ravens were flagged for violations, and another Raven and a Bear were hit with unnecessary-roughness infractions. No offensive players were tagged, but casual conversations with individuals in and around the game suggest that those calls will come, if only in response to complaints from defensive players about unequal enforcement.

(Of course, there’s somehow a quirky irony in premiering a measure pegged as a step toward player safety, and doing it in an extra preseason game, in a sport where the notions of “extra preseason game” and “safety” seem a touch oxymoronic. But that’s for another discussion.)

For a league grappling largely unsuccessfully with anthem policies and catch rules, the rollout of the helmet rule was anything but a success. Game analysts were confused, and players on at least one NFL team expressed confusion directly after meetings with officials to have the rule explained.

It in fact has little chance of achieving a significant uptick in “safety.” And it has all the potential of altering the outcomes of games as much or more than any other statute on the NFL books, for reasons ranging from the imposition of the penalty at the time, to possible fines or suspensions upon further review.

“The rule is so simply written but it expands so far, depending on how it’s applied,” said former NFL referee Terry McAulay, now a rules analyst for NBC and offering that commentary during Thursday’s game.

The problems are simple and obvious.

The first is enforcement. Officials, like players, are human. Even the ones watching on replay screens in New York. Replays of instances in Thursday’s game raised as many questions as they answered as to what was or wasn’t a clear violation.

The second is that the “fault” in an illegal hit is not entirely within the control of the tackler/blocker/runner/receiver. A move in the last split-second before impact and a ballcarrier moves into, not away from, an otherwise properly-aimed helmet from an incoming player. Neither player intended for the hit to be improper, but it will be, sometime.

The third lies in the simple numbers. As appalling as some catch/no-catch situations and rulings have been, the situations occur only a handful of times during a game.

But in Thursday’s game, the two teams ran a total of 139 plays. Even on plays without tackles, such as touchdowns or players going out of bounds, the potential exists for upwards of 6-8 hits per play, whether blocks or whatever, or ballcarriers running into more than one per play.

Doing the loose math, the result could be as many as 1,000 instances of actionable contact per game, not 2-3 with a catch rule.

Best guess is that more than two infractions will be called in more than a game or two this season. For loose illustrative purposes, the Ravens were a relatively well-behaved team last season, with their 46.8 penalty yards per game ranking fourth-lowest in the NFL. The new rule cost them 30 last night that wouldn’t have been assessed previously. Which may have been in the back of the mind of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who lauded the rule as “great” back in May after it was enacted, but told reporters post-game last night, “I don’t know enough about the rule to understand it right now and comment on it.”

When one of the NFL’s longest-tenured and Super Bowl-winning coaches doesn’t know enough to understand a rule, best guess is that the problem is with the rule, not the coach.

 

It's a big week for HaHa Clinton-Dix to reflect – both on the past and the future

It's a big week for HaHa Clinton-Dix to reflect – both on the past and the future

As media members congregated (see: aggressively ran) towards Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s corner locker, the Bears’ locker room burst to life. Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson, only a few feet away, started laughing and giving the safety a hard time for talking with so many cameras. Fellow safety Eddie Jackson stood just behind the scrum, jumping up and down to try to distract him. Tarik Cohen – and about 20 unidentified others – could be heard yelling “HaHa” as Clinton-Dix started fielding the first questions. 

“The vibe in this locker room is great,” he said with a grin. “The guys in here are pumped up, man. We’re just excited about the game coming up this week.”

It’s Packers Week for everyone, but the lead up to Sunday’s game is probably a little bit different for Clinton-Dix – whether he’ll admit it publicly or not. He was drafted by Green Bay back in 2014 and played there for four-and-a-half seasons. It’s where he was given Charles Woodson’s number, and where he made his only Pro Bowl (2016) so far. Sunday will be the first time he’s back, and “homecomings” always mean a little extra, right?

“Not a damn thing,” Clinton-Dix said, keeping a half-convincing poker face. It didn’t last long. 

“I’m just kidding, man,” he added. “It means a lot to be able to go back and play against guys that I’ve been with for the past five years. Getting to compete against your friends makes things more fun and more competitive.” 

“I'm sure he'll be fired up,” Matt Nagy added. 

It’ll be the first time he’s played Green Bay since being traded, but Clinton-Dix has already shown a knack for getting revenge on old teams. In the Bears’ Week 3 win over Washington, he had a touchdown, two interceptions, and two passes deflected. If that sort of performance comes against a team he played nine games for, imagine what he could do against a team he played for eight times as long. 

“If [Aaron Rodgers] decides to bless me and throw me the ball twice, I’ll be happy as hell,” he said. “Unfortunately [he] doesn’t work that way. He’s the best quarterback in the game, and we just have to go execute and make big plays.” 

Clinton-Dix swears he harbors no ill-will towards Green Bay, and says he’s under no illusions about the business side of professional football. According to him, he’s merely happy to have already suited up for two of the league’s flagship organizations. 

“Green Bay and Chicago are two of the most prestigious organizations in the business” he said. “High, top-quality places to play at. I’m blessed to be able to play for both.” 

There’s another business decision rapidly headed his way, though one he’s a bit more in control of. Clinton-Dix will be a free agent at the end of the season, and has clearly played well enough to earn more than the one-year, $3 million contract that the Bears’ signed him to as a prove-it deal. Even if some of the advanced metrics would disagree with his improved-season narrative, he’s put enough good plays on tape to warrant a longer-term deal. The Bears aren’t swimming in cap space and have the other star safety from Alabama to take care of, so the odds of running it back in 2020 don’t look great. But, as Clinton-Dix was quick to remind the eager media scrum, that’s a bridge to cross after Packers Week, and Chiefs Week, and Vikings Week. 

“Only thing I can reflect on is these next three games,” he said. “I’m going to give you the media answer, but I’m excited about this game – I can’t express it anymore. Like I said, I’ve got to finish this game strong. The next three games are important to me, and this one’s next on the list.” 

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Arena League Revenge and Great Boxing: How the Bears are getting ready for their rematch

Arena League Revenge and Great Boxing: How the Bears are getting ready for their rematch

What a difference 24 hours makes. 

Here’s Mitch Trubisky, from his weekly Wednesday press conference, talking about the Bears-Packers rivalry. 

“I mean, the rivalry is important for sure,” he said. “The rivalry is very important. But I just feel like where we're at as a team, we're just hungry, that whoever is on our schedule next, we're going to come ready to play where we're playing with confidence. We don't really care who shows up next. The rivalry game is important, but I just sense overall a hungry team that's pretty focused, and hopefully that just drives us to get better throughout the week and come ready to play on Sunday.” 

How diplomatic! Despite this Sunday’s game in Green Bay being the 200th meeting between two of the NFL’s original franchises, there’s been a surprisingly large amount of water thrown on the whole notion of rivalry games around Halas Hall this week. That is, until Thursday. When Nagy was asked about Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who’s returning to Green Bay for the first time since being traded last year, the coach wasted no time showing that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. 

“I mean, on a much smaller spectrum, I've been traded away as a player,” Nagy said. “And I know what that feels like when you play them again. To each their own. I'm sure he'll be fired up. But it's a personal deal with him. I know he'll be focused there to help his defense out.” 

Nagy, of course, is talking about the earth-shattering Arena Football League trade that sent him from the Georgia Force to the Columbus Destroyers in 2007. Nagy got his shot at revenge in the playoffs, when he took the 6-seed Destroyers (7-9) into the Arena at Gwinnett Center and beat the 2-seed Force (14-2), 66-56. Nagy was 23-of-34 for 209 yards and five touchdowns. 

“We played them in the NFC championship game of the Arena League, and we dominated them!” he said. “I'll never forget that game.” 

The Bears now seem happy to embrace the revenge narrative, among a half dozen other motivational colloquialisms they’ve adopted during this three-game win streak. On offense, they’re trying to avoid watching too much of Week 1’s loss, and schematically speaking that’s probably not a bad idea. On defense, they’re watching hand-to-hand combat. It's probably a little on the nose, but when is football not? 

“We like showing boxing stuff,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “You ever watch the Gatti-Ward fight, Round 9?”

Ring Magazine named the bout Fight of the Year in 2002, and Hall of Famer Manny Steward called that ninth round the “Round of the Century.” Micky Ward was a former prodigy who never quite fulfilled his potential, but he managed to find his way back into boxing after a hiatus spent paving roads and upset the heavily favored Arturo Gatti. Though he won by majority decision in 10 rounds, knocking Gotti down in the ninth is widely considered Ward’s crowning achievement – so much so that they got Mark Walhberg to play him in a movie.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but the Bears don’t need complete accuracy to find the motivation behind an underdog landing a late-round, knock-down blow. 

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